Pico Iyer Journeys

The End of The Road

But more than just leading him into a demi-monde of hipsters, nomad girls and visionaries, drumming seems to lie behind the syncopation that gives Native State its compelling structure. Cutting back and forth between his returns to Los Angeles, from Mexico, to visit his dying father in the late Nineties, and the memories of his own vagrant youth these returns unlock, Cohan switches back and forth, impeccably, between the time when all the world was before him and he only had to take it, and the time, now, when he returns, close to sixty, and realizes that he, too, will soon be in his father’s state. The epigraph for the book comes from the 12th century Japan Buddhist priest Kenko–“The finest thing in life is its uncertainty”–and, without ever saying so out loud, it gives everything we read about a kind of Buddhist undertow of impermanence and illusion: even the moments that were so enlivening and emancipating for Cohan in Africa and Europe will one day be gone.

For almost every reader, I suspect, the outlines of the young Cohan’s life will seem almost impossibly exotic, not least because, ever contained and unillusioned, he shows little interest in the exoticism of them himself. The romance in his life exists not, of course, in the boyhood minglings with Rita Hayworth and Orson Welles that were a part of his distrusted father’s world, but in the way he replaced them with his own full-bodied embrace of the mid-century’s rebellions. The Beatles, Jim Morrison and Richard Serra all were a part of his past, and Cohan was only twenty-two when he stepped into Barbara Hutton’s casbah villa in Morocco and started chatting with Paul Bowles. “The rooms pulsed with local oud (itals) orchestras, hermaphroditic dancing boys, joujouka {itals} trance drummers from the Rif Mountains, a Ghanaian dance troupe en route to Paris to perform at the Olympia” (129-130). In the years that followed, riding the Euro-Bohemian circuit, he ended up running drugs in North Africa and Paris, picking up jazz gigs (and exotic girls) while sleeping in the train station of Copenhagen, even coming very close to becoming a gigolo in London. Later he will live in a silk merchant’s daughter’s villa in Kyoto (258), set off to meet the other drummer-writer Robert Graves (194) in Spain and write lyrics for Chick Corea (as he does to this day).

Yet all of these episodes are seen from the perspective of forty years on, and a disconcertingly large number of the artists and travelers he hung with are broken people, or dead now, often by their own hand. In one passage worthy of the late German wanderer, W.G. Sebald, Cohan describes a shady friend who ended up in Nyhaven, the Danish port, going every day to the harbor to visit the parents of his dead Swedish girlfriend (killed during a botched abortion) and every day returning to his little room again, defeated (219). Just as often, the older writer looks back on his double life with a mordant irony. Studying in Santa Barbara in the late Fifties, he spent his days deconstructing Whorf and Becket and Chaucer, and his nights, on the other side of town, playing drums at Duke’s strip club. At one point his parents proudly arrive at Duke’s to listen to their teenage son at his first real job, and come the very evening he has set aside for his first date with one Miss Honey Bare, who has promised to show him in private what all her public unveiling is a prelude to.

Cohan records all this with a meticulous care and elegance; recoiling from the windy excesses of the Beats, he says, he gravitated more towards Paul Bowles (himself, of course, a celebrated musician and collector of Moroccan recordings for the Library of Congress) for his combination of “formal calm with radical vision.” (135) That same mix is what stands behind and holds up Cohan’s exacting sentences, which describe murders in Barcelona, drug busts and stints as a porno novelist (294) without ever losing their cool, or their clipped, slightly mournful eloquence. When he returns to California in 1963–in a typical switch, he goes from backing a blind pianist in Catalonia to enrolling at Berkeley medical school–he catches all the surrealism of the time not by describing Telegraph Avenue, but simply by recording his trip one day to a neuropsychiatric Navy hospital in Oakland, where he saw “wheelchairs run by armless men with their mouths.”

And in the background, always, is an L.A. that displaces him to the core, the storage bins along the freeways that suggest a society forever in transit (29), the “Santa Ana breeze rustling the oleanders, smell of suntan oil and semen,” (95), the view from the pier “past the pinball arcade with the skee balls in their troughs, Madame Doreena’s crystal ball on velvet, the merry-go-round ponies frozen to their poles behind glass doors.” (228) A little of this may be familiar to us from Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, or White Oleander–even from James Ellroy’s accounts of a child sitting amidst the debris of messed-up families in L.A. in the Fifties–but Cohan brings a particular haunted poignancy to the place, both in his memories of high-school couplings–“Our slow motion waltz of delicate permissions” (58)–and in his return to the decaying city of the Nineties.

The central question of any memoir, of course, is how much it comes to a kind of understanding with the past; how well, that is, it gets on with forgiveness. The strongest writers of memory, in my book–Philip Roth, V.S. Naipaul, Paul Theroux and John le Carre–are the ones who can afford to be unsparingly honest on the world because they are no less unsparing with themselves. The suspicion that attaches to the form these days derives in part from our sense that too often the writer will use the page as a box in a courtroom in which he can advance his own cause by indicting all the crimes of Mommy or Daddy dearest.

Cohan does none of this, working his way slowly, and honestly, towards a loving acceptance of his aging father, which amounts, no less, to a clear-eyed reckoning with his own past as an angry young man. This always delicate task is helped by a prose that is never unaware of its own music (listen to the sounds when he notes his first impression of the Japanese as “a compact, impassive purposeful mass of people in dark suits”) (258), and, more than that, finds a way in music to talk about transcendence. The descriptions of the “weightless skywriting of Charlie Parker, the abstract interstellar voids of Miles Davis,” (181) Dexter Gordon’s inventions, which “unfolded like a Japanese scroll,” (182) and, especially, the occasional epiphanies of Bud Powell, even as he was beginning to fade away, both record a time and suggest something timeless, about how music can take us out of ourselves, and out of even the most mixed-up circumstances. I met Cohan three years ago, but reading his book, with its graceful movement towards farewell, I realize how little I really saw of him. In Native State he has given us a small classic of Californian retrospection that begins, in its wistful clarity, to explain us to ourselves.

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